Beginning in 2018, Ariyana and Stephan Hernandez launched NORA the agency to give clients a tailored approach to building their brand and community. While their collaborators include global powerhouses like YSL Beauty and L'Oréal, "what really gets [them] going is working with the brands that don't necessarily have access to all the same resources and capabilities that a larger company would...That's why we started the agency in the first place," explains co-founder Stephan Hernandez.
With their combined experience in leading marketing firms, start-ups, and menswear, the couple put their heads together to create a next-gen agency that is first and foremost aesthetically driven; NORA is inspired by design and storytelling. A look at their client list and the assets they've collaborated on makes that clear. We spoke to the founders about the ever-changing media landscape, the importance of diving headfirst into your company, and what it takes to get an idea off the ground.
This interview took place over the phone between Ella in Brooklyn and Ariyana and Stephan Hernandez in Los Angeles.
How did you guys get to where you are today?
Ariyana Smith Hernandez: I think that our personalities and approach to connection has helped us get to where we are today. I can answer that question based on our quality and our decision making. We are where we are because we’re open to every opportunity. Being generally friendly, communicative individuals has helped us in ways that I can't even explain. We treat everyone that we meet with respect. We're really interested in learning more about everyone.
Stephan and I are extremely extroverted individuals. We find that we meet a lot of people, and we keep them within our universe, so to speak. We always keep them in mind for projects, taking them to coffee, etc. This really helped us become top-of-mind when individuals are looking for marketing or PR support. We've grown our business entirely through word of mouth. To date, we haven't pitched a client–they've all been referred to us by friends, by prior clients, or they've discovered us organically.
Stephan Hernandez: Ariyana and I met really young; we've been together for a really long time. We were best friends, and then we got married. I don't know if you knew were a couple, but–surprise.
We're fortunate in that both of us look at the world in the same way, but from very different perspectives as far our personality types, the way we process information, and our level of creativity. Whether it's our previous work, starting an agency, or working with clients we always ask the question: why are things done this way, and how can we do them differently? Ariyana comes from an analytical perspective and I'm the more creative side. We're able to balance each other out and come together to make high-level ideas work in an efficient way.
When starting a creative business, one can often get bogged down or stumped with perfecting the brand identity and creating a manifesto–I feel that NORA is proof of the fact that sometimes it's just better to jump right in, and the clients will follow. How much preemptive work was done?
ASH: We actually started with a criteria for the brands that we wanted to work with, and naturally, those were brands and founders that were already within our network because that was what we were attracted to. We strongly prefer aesthetically driven brands, brands that that really care about design and have unique products. Visual storytelling is something that they either do well or want to do well. We like brands that have a story to tell, in some way or another.
To be honest, we didn't start with a full business plan or a manifesto. It was a vision for the type of clients that we wanted to work with, and also a clear idea for the ways that we could really add value and impact change. Because we are aesthetically driven individuals, we knew that we could only do that if our clients were like-minded.
SH: Some people, myself included, can get caught up in everything being perfect, especially when you're driven by aesthetic; you want things to look impeccable before they’re presented to the world. But when it comes to starting a business or any sort of endeavor, I think that you kinda just gotta jump in. If you are true to yourself, and what your idea is, that's the only way you're going to get to it. Even though we jumped in without a real business plan, it's kind of built into who we are. The brands that we've attracted, and that we've had the privilege to work with, are very much a part of our identity.
So NORA is pro-diving in.
ASH: That is actually the opposite advice that we give to all of our clients. But they're creating a product where you have product planning and production. They have to get raw materials and things like that.
When you're in the creative services industry, it's so important to know who you are and where you add value. But you also have to be extremely flexible to work on a variety of projects and to open yourself up and let your vision and trends in the market move you. It is really hard to come up with a traditional business plan in that way and execute off of it because things change in the blink of an eye.
A great example is that we were previously building out capabilities to produce longer-form content, thinking about IGTV and how brands are starting to do a lot with video ads, video on their sites, etc. And then all of a sudden, there's Tiktok and Instagram Reel. And now people are recording really short clips of content and finding super innovative and engaging ways to slice it up. And that's totally different than anything I would have imagined two years ago. So in the creative industry, we found that it's important to dive in.
You mentioned a few times that you’re driven by impacting change and adding value to the industry that you're in. How have you achieved those goals through your agency?
SH: We have a real passion for working with emerging brands, and we've been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some larger, even global brands. But what really gets us going is working with the brands that don't necessarily have access to all the same resources and capabilities that a larger company would. That's why we started the agency in the first place.
We have a large community of really authentic brands with niche audiences. They're not always necessarily interested in making a ton of money or growing to be global, they just wanted to create something for themselves and for people like them in their community. We wanted to be able to give the resources to those kinds of brands to further their goals, to further their businesses, and to be able to help people start brands. And, still do the things that the big dogs do and are able to pour tons of money into.
ASH: To Stephan's point, when we talk with some of our friends that start agencies we ask them: what you want to do? A lot of times, it's dictated by one or two clients that they really want to work with and attract. And a lot of times, they're really large, global brands.
At NORA, we love those clients and we want to work with them. However, we're really driven by emerging brands and brands that are doing something in a fresh and different way. They utilize our strategies, our campaign, our plans; we can see tangibly how that impacts their business within months: in terms of revenue, track recognition, audience growth, and their Instagram engagement. We can actually track and measure dollars, and we can see our strategies and our creative add value immediately. And so that's something that we really take a lot of pride in.
From a timeline perspective, Ariyana, I noticed you've worked for some large agencies (Guthy | Renker) and serviced huge global clients. Do you want to walk through the different positions you've held?
AS: I started out working at an agency. I have so many varied interests and being in-house at an agency really spoke to me because every day I was able to work on new projects, manage new clients, and understand new industries. That flexibility and being able to understand how to shift my thinking, hour-by-hour, or day-to-day, going from the fashion industry to the beauty industry to an alcohol brand, for example–that was a skill that I was able to learn really early in my career.
I had experience working at a larger corporation, and that has been very valuable because I'm able to understand when to push on the gas and when to slow things down. When we're working with some of our larger global clients, for example, and they want us to assist with a campaign launch, they say that they want to do something really interesting. Given my background, I understand that we need to propose a very safe, a kind of safe, a little-bit- out-of-the-box, and a really radical idea. We need to hit every single one of those boxes for them. Sometimes they may want to go way out-of-the-box, and other times it just doesn't work with their corporate goals.
As creators, it can sometimes be a little challenging to not understand why an idea that we knew as being exceptional wasn't well-received. That experience of working in corporate working for larger global brands helps me to really put things into perspective so that at our agency we're not easily disappointed. We understand that pushing a brand to be more innovative takes time. It doesn't happen overnight.
SH: I definitely get disappointed. I'm the opposite of what Ariyana just described. When we sign on with a client, the first thing I do is figure out: what's everything you've done, what's everything that people in your space are doing, and how do we completely depart from that and create something new that no one's seen? And so I'm always trying to get clients to do crazy, unique things.
ASH: Usually, they'll appreciate and listen to that creative thinking, and the end product is somewhere between what they've always done and this crazy unique out-of-the-box idea. Occasionally we'll get a founder or brand that's willing to take that extra step with us. But, inherently we understand the balance, and we understand that we'll get there eventually.
We both have experience in the startup world. And that was really kind of the driving force behind starting NORA–wanting to work with founders and brands like the brands that we started or for came from, and truly understanding the limitations there. We want to provide a really complete creative solution for them.
I've had the opportunity, to be on the advisory board for SXSW, for two or three years now. Usually, I'm tapped for expertise in the fashion and startup space. That's really my passion. I enjoy hearing the creative ideas; we get some of the most unique discussion topics, and we get to discover some really awesome companies.
And Stephan, what about you?
SH: My line wasn't as straight as Ariyana's. I've always been a creative. I grew up with dancing, music, art, so on. Workwise I went a different route. I wasn't really true to myself, if you will. I grew up in a family where I was first-generation American, my family didn't have much. And so they were very insistent on focusing on a "career," and while being creative was encouraged, to a degree, it was not looked at as a career.
My mom was a patternmaker and did some designs for brands like GAP, and so I grew up watching her on cutting tables. If you fast forward past me going to school and working in completely unrelated, absolutely not creative fields, I've always had a passion for fashion (not to be corny.)
At the beginning of my early 20s, Ariyana encouraged me to pursue more. I started getting into men's tailored clothing and fashion. I kind of became obsessed with the way men's apparel was made, textiles, and different weaves. I worked in really high-end and luxury suiting. I started a brand and was privileged enough to work with a lot of executives and athletes, all sorts of people, really cool creatives in LA. I made their apparel, dressed them, and helped them feel great in what they were wearing.
I've always been passionate about social psychology and developmental psychology, in particular. On the side, that really motivated me to be interested in marketing. It worked out that Ariyana went to school for marketing, and so I got to pick her brain, and we got to have a lot of really cool conversations.
ASH: You know, some things are taught and some things are innate. I think what was interesting is that while I did go to school for marketing, I've always understood how things fit together. Stephan is very similar in that, even though he didn't go to school for marketing, it comes so naturally to him. When we're presented with a brand, a new product, or collection, our minds just really start to run wild with all of the ways that we could expose it to the right audiences, all the ways that we can make it more culturally relevant and interesting. That's something that is very hard to teach.
We work well together because I see the path and I follow the path; Stephan doesn't see the path. He follows his passion, culture, and trends. And so together, it allows us to help our clients do things in a really smart way. We don't make recommendations just because it feels cool. We make recommendations because it makes sense for their business. It's smart, it's going to make money, and it's really damn cool.
What does an average day at NORA look like for you?
ASH: It's really evolved, this year has been totally different. I would say about a fifth of our day is going to managing people and understanding what's going on with all of our team members and the interconnectivity of their project or tasks. We provide custom solutions for every client; no two clients engage us in the same way, so it's very fluid. Our team isn't set up in a way where each person is just working on one thing. We all work together in a highly collaborative way. So, Stephan and I spend a lot of time understanding where everyone is and what they need to do to get to the next step.
For me, I try and spend time every day doing mood boarding and research; just allowing myself to escape and see what's going on in our client's industries, and also completely unrelated industries to fuel creative thinking. We spend a lot of time with actual execution. So, whether that's a campaign shoot or executing a new website design, a branding project, or coming up with the ideation and the process for an event, whether it's physical or digital. Our day is just all over the place. We're spending time on the computer, and then also going out and meeting with people.
SH: Ariyana is the super bubbly face of the brand. For a long time, I don't think anybody even knew I was a part of NORA because I was always in the background.
If I had a choice of what I could do, I'd basically be Warren Buffett, where I just read and analyze things all day, and then come up with ideas based on all of the research and analysis and thinking I've done. So that is a part of what I do pretty regularly.
Lots of mood boarding, brainstorming, ideating concepts. Whenever we have a branding project, I'm heavily involved in managing and executing those. Last week, we had three photoshoots and one video shoot and I was on set art directing. For NORA, I'm not the one necessarily taking the photos or doing graphic design on Photoshop, but I'm orchestrating the end visual.
Who does your team consist of?
ASH: Internally, there are twelve employees (not including Stephan and me.) We have a marketing associate that focuses entirely on marketing channels, emails, paid ads, social etc. We have paid digital ads specialists, art directors, copywriters, photographers on staff, project managers, graphic designers, and partnerships leads (individuals that really understand who should be collaborating with who and how to see that through to fruition.)
We have David [Gomez-Villamediana], a PR media relations lead. And we have a tastemaker/influencer lead, someone who really understands individuals who have an audience or have built a community, and how we can engage with them. We have Christina Malik, who has extensive experience working on the creative and branding of some amazing consumer brands. Our team members are specialists and it allows us to work on a variety of creative projects.
One thing I will say is that diversity has always been really important to us. I'm Black and Stephan is Latin. Everyone who works at NORA, is either female or a minority and we're really proud of that.
We contract out to creatives as well. For example, if we're hired to execute a photoshoot, and we feel that there's a specific photographer/videographer who would have the right vision, we hire them. Some of the photographers that we have loved to work with are Pavielle Garcia and Noah Dillon.
What's the most exciting project you've worked on so far?
ASH: Working with the L'Oréal designer beauty team on ways to engage individuals in a completely digital format has been a very exciting project for us. If you think about designer beauty, you think about Armani Beauty, YSL Beauty, Atelier Cologne–these are all brands that you would typically discover in shops, maybe in a department store.
With COVID, no longer are we going to Bergdorf, or Saks, or Nordstrom to shop. Helping these legacy brands, that have been doing things one way for a very long time, embrace a digital format and find unique ways to still bring the brand to life while still creating an elevated experience has been really exciting for us. We've taken the thinking of a startup or emerging brand and been able to apply it to a legacy brand which is a feat–to say the least.
ASH: On the more emerging side, we really love working with Studio Constance. When looking at the business model and her approach to fashion, it's very different than any fashion brand that we've worked with. She's launched with a vision for a circular brand, so she will be buying that used SC merchandise. She’s already created all of the processes to either resell the product on her platform, or to take the knitwear product itself, and actually take it apart yarn-by-yarn, and recycle it for a new collection.
SH: We've seen this type of thinking applied to basics, but we've never seen it applied to the more high fashion, affordable luxury brow. There are tons of theoretical brands that aren't really, truly sustainable in the sense of a data-functioning brand that could grow, and scale, and last. I think that it's really exciting that we can wear something so luxurious, and it's better for the environment.
What advice do you have for someone that is just starting out at an agency or thinking of starting their own company?
ASH: Challenge everything. Challenge your clients. We've found that so many brands are doing things just because they think that they should be doing them, or because they have been told it is a best practice and have never thought about how they can put their own unique spin on the same activity, or whether or not it's actually impacting change for their business. Is it inspiring their customers or not?
We've seen so much success in challenging our clients. If they come to us for a creative execution, we'll ask them: why are we approaching it this way? Have you seen success with this before? What does success mean? What's your mission? What story are you trying to tell and how can we make it better?
SH: I think my advice would be to be humble but always bold. Never stop learning. Always be a student. As a marketer, when you get cozy and kind of complacent, thinking you know everything, that's when you're going to fail because things are always shifting. If you think that you have nothing else to learn, that's when you should be worried.
What's exciting you about the new generation of makers and where we're at in the world right now?
SH: This is a point in history that later generations will learn about in school; one of those pivotal moments in history that completely changes the way the world functions forevermore. Even though it hasn't been a great year for most people, and there are a lot of bad things, it’s exciting to be in this moment and try to figure out how can we mold that future that people will be studying about decades from now.
I'm excited to see what's happening with Gen-Z and Gen-Alpha. It's interesting to see how they interacting with each other and with the world, and how it's affecting their development. Culture is shifting with younger generations, especially with social media, which has both positive and negative impacts. How will that apply to brands in the future?
A lot has fallen away in 2020, and I think that what's happening now is making way for brands that have more authentic stories that come from a more genuine place; brands that are for people and by people. I think, now, more than ever, people are willing to put their dollars with those companies and are starting to see the value in their purchasing power. And again, I'm saying all this, but Amazon is worth more money than any other company in the world, so there are definitely pros and cons and an argument to be made for both sides. But I think at least in our little sphere, it's keeping us motivated and excited.
Wondering what tunes Stephan and Ariyana listen to at the studio, listen below: